Fuel Tips: Fuels for a Post-Apocalyptic World

Staff
By Staff Writer
Sep 9, 2021 | Fuel Tips | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Steve Harvey/Unsplash

Sponsored Content Presented by Sunoco Race Fuels.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. No birthday party. No cheesecake. No jellybean. The big question: How on earth are you going to power your post-apocalyptic death machine?

Gasoline

As the past hundred years have shown, gasoline makes a fine fuel for cars. “Gasoline’s energy density is pretty high,” notes Zachary J. Santner, technical specialist with Sunoco Race Fuel. In very simple terms, this means that gasoline provides a lot of energy relative to its mass. It’s why a tank of gas will take the average car a few hundred miles. 

But gasoline might not be perfect for wandering the Wasteland. Under ideal conditions, its shelf life is somewhat limited–one to two years, max, for peak performance. Gasoline is also rather tricky to refine, especially with limited resources, Santner continues, noting that the same is true for kerosene and Jet A-1 fuel. 

Diesel

“It is currently blended with more biomass than gasoline,” Santner notes. Diesel substitutes can also be relatively easily brewed from biomatter. This could be a strong contender. 

Ethanol

It can be sourced from many kinds of fermentation, but home-distilling alcohol past 95% isn’t easy. “You could surely burn a 95% ethanol/5% water mixture,” Santner says, “but water does cause issues with corrosion and fuel systems.”

Propane, Methane and Other Liquified Petroleums

The short answer, Santner says, is that these all have less energy density than gasoline. A possible refueling source, however, could involve capturing methane released from decomposing organic matter, including that found in landfills. (For a related idea, revisit Bartertown from the third “Mad Max” film.)

Pyrolysis

Heating certain materials in the absence of oxygen–plastics or organics like coal–releases flammable gases that can then be burned for fuel. The Lane Motor Museum’s collection includes a 1938 Citroën converted to run on methane gas derived from heated coal. It can travel about 30 miles on a load of coal. 

Electricity

Another option, assuming you can power your generator and also schlep around batteries. 

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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
1/27/21 10:12 a.m.

I've always considered what my ride would be for the "after times," but I guess I never considered what I would put in it to keep it running.

lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter)
lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
1/27/21 10:21 a.m.

That picture reminds me of one of the old abandoned gas stations from the movie The Last Chase. It's one that most have probably never seen. It stars Lee Majors and a Porsche 917-10 "clone". Cheesy movie from back in 1981. Go look it up all you car guys......

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 10:33 a.m.
Colin Wood said:

I've always considered what my ride would be for the "after times," but I guess I never considered what I would put in it to keep it running.

See, exactly. Sure, you have already planned out your DeathMobile, but how will you keep it running? Can't outrun the mutants if you're outta gas. 

ChrisTropea
ChrisTropea Associate Editor
1/27/21 10:50 a.m.

What about a wood powered engine? 

 

Gearheadotaku (Forum Supporter)
Gearheadotaku (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
1/27/21 10:55 a.m.

3 choices.

1. Find a producing oil well and build a refinery there. (Don't know how, but there must be a low tech way to do this. You probably won't get 100 octane race gas though)

2. Start disilling alcohol, hope you have a good field of grain and sugar cane.

3. Take over a hydroelectric dam. Lots of power for an electric car. Put additional batteries on a trailer for more range.

 

tomtomgt356 (FS)
tomtomgt356 (FS) GRM+ Memberand Reader
1/27/21 11:04 a.m.

Steam power! As long as you have water, you can run on anything that burns!

RevRico
RevRico UltimaDork
1/27/21 11:16 a.m.

Alcohol still or electric. Batteries are easy enough to come by that short of another ice age finding supplies would be easy, solar farms and wind farms can be taken over or even moved to better locations. Anything that grows can be convinced to ferment with fire, water, and time. 

I'd be trying for electric personally, less moving parts to deal with means less drastic means of repair and replacement.

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
1/27/21 11:18 a.m.

Bicycles tend to get oddly overlooked in postapocalyptic movies and literature, but they seem like they'd be very useful when fuel is hard to come by.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 1:16 p.m.

In reply to MadScientistMatt :

I was thinking that or a horse. 

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
1/27/21 1:18 p.m.

Look at what our Amish neighbors do, and copy that. I see lots of horses, walking, little scooters. If things get really desperate methanol and ethanol aren't THAT hard to make. Probably worth printing the how-to and keeping it in your safe.

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
1/27/21 1:18 p.m.
MadScientistMatt said:

Bicycles tend to get oddly overlooked in postapocalyptic movies and literature, but they seem like they'd be very useful when fuel is hard to come by.

I wouldn't say they are overlooked, I've read many books where bikes were used

alfadriver (Forum Supporter)
alfadriver (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
1/27/21 1:20 p.m.

WRT alcohol- need some special look at the remaining water.  There will always be leftover water no matter how good the normal still is.  So the car has to be robust to having water in it, or you have chemical means to remove the water (it's chemical but based on solids), or you make that special still that can actually produce 100% alcohol (which is not just a massive reflux still- there are some tricks to do more- one still person I know mentions a vacuum system in the process).

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 1:21 p.m.

Add to the list: longboards and those skateboard/sail kite things. 

chaparral
chaparral Dork
1/27/21 1:25 p.m.

3600 psi natural gas, or methanol produced by the water-gas reaction. 

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
1/27/21 1:30 p.m.
tomtomgt356 (FS) said:

Steam power! As long as you have water, you can run on anything that burns!

This

Wood gas. 

I already have the plans printed and filed somewhere safe. 

I also have several really old engines. Think early 1900. They will burn almost anything and can be repaired with a sledge and a file. 

 

Vajingo
Vajingo Reader
1/27/21 5:34 p.m.

Here's the thing guys... in a gasoline starved world, it's just like madmax. Except they can hear your ICE. And when they hear you... "They" come running... looking for that gasoline. 
 

I'll take my solar powered, 2000w electric bike please. You'll never hear me. If "they" see me, they can't catch me. 

Ian F (Forum Supporter)
Ian F (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
1/28/21 7:32 a.m.

In reply to Vajingo :

Electric bikes are quiet, but not silent.  In a world without as much external noise, they would be heard. 

Even bicycles are not always silent. Fixed gear bikes - very quiet. As are some bikes with silent "clutch" rear hubs (Onyx is a popular brand right now).

In such a world, I would likely spend so much of my time cultivating food (and storing for the winter) that travel would not be a top priority. 

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
1/28/21 8:44 a.m.

Setup carburetor to run on alcohol. Set up still to create alcohol.  Ferment the bodies. Problem solved.

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
1/28/21 8:56 a.m.
Vajingo
Vajingo Reader
1/28/21 9:29 a.m.

In reply to Ian F (Forum Supporter) :

Yep. Quiet enough to only be heard when in the vicinity. Allowing someone to get the jump on would be attackers. By the time they hear youf you've already zoomed by, and they, without enough time to react. Whereas an ICE would be heard at least a 1/4 mile away, and attract every miscreant in the 1/4 mile radius. And in order to escape, you would have to turn the car off, or spend a lot of fuel accelerating away.  With an electric bike, you simply pedal down an alley way and easily stash it, and then begin walking about like an innocent bystander. 

jharry3
jharry3 GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
1/28/21 10:25 a.m.

The original settlers of the North American continent used bison dung as fuel for thousands of  years.   

But then the Bluecoats killed almost all the bison...  

GIRTHQUAKE
GIRTHQUAKE Dork
1/28/21 10:32 a.m.

Ammonia could be another idea for your Mad Max fuel; The Haber-Bosch process is complicated for what we're doing here, but Ammonia has no carbon so it cannot foul up and can also be used for cleaning and disinfecting, which will be needed with no society. Alcohol and ethanol would probably be the best tho, since you also get a medical source AND can get drunk on it too!

Otherwise, I'd be e-bike all the way, perhaps small vehicles using salvaged forklift motors. A Brushed DC motor into a bike is dead-simple and the "power" switch could be actuated via altering voltage- there's a guy from Pakistan I know who made his E-bike for free, and his "power switch" was the fan speed element ripped out of a Nissan Truck he found abandoned in a field. For higher tech, lots of forklifts are going AC for power instead of DC to get that sweet Regen, though I'm not sure how many are IPM motors for your E-wasteland rides.

That reminds me, I had an idea for an Environmentalist Mad Max spinoff...

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
1/28/21 11:14 a.m.

Saltwater batteries, you can use the tears of your enemies!

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
1/28/21 12:40 p.m.

Never thought about the noise an engine would make. Assuming the world comes to standstill after the apocalypse, you could probably hear a running engine for miles away.

I'm learning that I am not as prepared for the after times as I thought. I'll stick to Fallout for now.

Rons
Rons GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
1/28/21 6:00 p.m.

Most people here seem to believe this post apocalyptic world will be a utopian paradise. My belief is it will be a dystopian feudal agrarian steam punk hell. 

There won’t be much travel because of the whole agrarian thing and our machines will use electricity because we’ll be using the original elements Earth, Wind, and Fire to obtain usable power.

I’ll leave it at that lest everyone comes to the realization that maybe I think too much.

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
1/28/21 7:20 p.m.
Rons said:

Most people here seem to believe this post apocalyptic world will be a utopian paradise. My belief is it will be a dystopian feudal agrarian steam punk hell. 

There won’t be much travel because of the whole agrarian thing and our machines will use electricity because we’ll be using the original elements Earth, Wind, and Fire to obtain usable power.

I’ll leave it at that lest everyone comes to the realization that maybe I think too much.

Using the tears of your enemies = utopian paradise to you?

Rons
Rons GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
1/28/21 8:09 p.m.

In reply to Antihero (Forum Supporter) :

I only saw most with the utopian paradise, not the wise ones who see the path.

03Panther
03Panther SuperDork
1/28/21 9:00 p.m.
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) said:

Just in case someone needs to print these out:

https://sciencing.com/make-wood-alcohol-through-distillation-7762993.html

https://greenliving.lovetoknow.com/How_to_Make_Ethanol

Filling up my emergency fuel trailer yesterday, and a guy mentioned wood gas... hadn't thought of it in years. You just saved me the time of looking it up!

Antihero (Forum Supporter)
Antihero (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
1/28/21 9:04 p.m.
Rons said:

In reply to Antihero (Forum Supporter) :

I only saw most with the utopian paradise, not the wise ones who see the path.

And I didn't even mention biobatteries......

CJ (FS)
CJ (FS) GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
1/29/21 1:21 a.m.

My dad entered high school in Southern California during WWII.  Of course, everything was rationed then, including gas. 

He told me that there were a couple of Model Ts that old guys had built wood gasifiers for.  Dad said they ran... sort of...

Since the T engine had been designed for poor fuel in mind - low compression and low RPM - I guess it was a good choice.

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/9/21 3:48 p.m.

In the immediate post-apocalypse, once the easy sources of lootable conventional fuels dry up/are under the control of warlords in assless chaps, the easy options are going to be running waste veg. oil in old diesel vehicles (this will be a valuable commodity), and charging EVs from improvised AC power sources. It'll be relatively easy to rig up solar arrays and wind turbines from salvaged materials for decades to come.

Junghole
Junghole SuperDork
9/9/21 5:30 p.m.

In reply to GameboyRMH :

Depends on the sitch. If mutants or zombies run amuck, wind turbines make you an easy to spot target. Solar arrays are a great way to trap someone. Sabotage a wire, wait in ambush for the farmer to come looking why. Slap farmer with a board with a nail in it. Take hostage the rest of the family. See, I've already thought of how to become evil after the apocalypse. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
9/9/21 5:55 p.m.

Have we mentioned horses yet? 

thatsnowinnebago
thatsnowinnebago GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
9/9/21 6:26 p.m.
David S. Wallens said:

Have we mentioned horses yet? 

You could probably make them into biodiesel but plants are easier to catch.

Sidewayze
Sidewayze Reader
9/9/21 8:17 p.m.

Doesn't matter.  In the post apocalyptic world everone seems to be envisioning, you will most likely drink some bad water and poop your colon out in the first month.

daeman
daeman Dork
9/9/21 8:34 p.m.

No real mention of dumb diesel yet?

Old school, non electronic diesel can run on just about any oil with a little thought and effort.

After the last drop of gasoline or diesel is gone, there's still likely to be vegetable oil floating around. Oil from the sumps of multiple fuelless vehicles that have been discarded. Biodiesel is another option. Hell, I'm betting rendered fat could be used.

You'd want something stout, slow, overbuilt with loose tolerances. Think old military vehicles or farm implements. Something with good ground clearance and 4x4/awd. Something that will go nearly anywhere, even if it's a bit slow doing it.

Manual transmission so roll starts are an option. No electric required, you know, in case the apocalypse was due to an emp or whatever.

 

daeman
daeman Dork
9/9/21 8:38 p.m.

In reply to Sidewayze :

Knowing how to source and sterilize water is a cornerstone of survival though. If you've made it far enough into the apocalypse to be thinking transport, you've probably already mastered shelter, water and fire.

80sFast
80sFast Reader
9/9/21 9:24 p.m.

In the end times I probably won't have much time for motor sports. Maybe I'll take up not dying as a hobby instead. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
9/10/21 10:27 a.m.
thatsnowinnebago said:
David S. Wallens said:

Have we mentioned horses yet? 

You could probably make them into biodiesel but plants are easier to catch.

To ride! Ride the horses. Not turn them into fuel....

KyAllroad
KyAllroad UltimaDork
9/10/21 1:16 p.m.
David S. Wallens said:
thatsnowinnebago said:
David S. Wallens said:

Have we mentioned horses yet? 

You could probably make them into biodiesel but plants are easier to catch.

To ride! Ride the horses. Not turn them into fuel....

Ew, riding horses?  Those things are big and stupid, falling off will really suck in an era without modern medicine.  A mountain bike is the better option if engines are off the table.

 

(I grew up on a horse farm and have ridden for years, I just don't like them.)

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
9/10/21 1:26 p.m.

Didn't we once ride horses--like for transportation? This was after the dinosaurs. 

A bike would be cool, too. My fear would be a parts failure. Snapped chain? Popped tube?

KyAllroad
KyAllroad UltimaDork
9/10/21 1:46 p.m.

Horses were never quite as common for transportation as people think.  They were expensive and take a lot of upkeep, most people walked from place to place.

With any level of industrialization, bicycles are the default transportation device.  Look at Asia, bicycles everywhere.

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/10/21 3:29 p.m.
David S. Wallens said:

A bike would be cool, too. My fear would be a parts failure. Snapped chain? Popped tube?

Inner tubes can be repaired until they're nearly made of patches (and protected from punctures with a good tube protector), and a tubeless setup can take a ton of punctures and self-seal, although tubeless sealant and piping insulation for DIY tubeless inserts would be hot commodities, as will parts that are difficult/impossible to DIY such as tires, inner tubes, chains, and multi-speed sprockets. Big-money silent hubs would be valuable for their stealth capabilities.

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